If you have attended a baseball game at Chase Field in the past 10 years, chances are you sat down to a scattered crowd of around 20,000 laid-back observers. You likely experienced short concessions lines and a high-five from Baxter, and your hearing was fully intact when you exited the ballpark. The scene on Sunday for Team USA versus Team Mexico in the World Baseball Classic was quite different.
There were deafening “U-S-A” chants before the first pitch was thrown, many of which were countered with even more deafening “Mé-xi-co” chants from impassioned mobs of green and red. There were spontaneous breakouts of Mexican folk song ‘Cielito Lindo.’ There were noisemaking devices that very well could have been outlawed during an official Major League Baseball game. And, oh yeah, there were 47,534 people in attendance.
But, more than any of that, there was a dramatic win by Team Mexico over a USA squad with more talent than possibly any WBC roster has ever had. On paper, it was a game that Team Mexico had no business winning.
To pull it off, Team Mexico used six pitchers: Patrick Sandoval, Javier Assad, JoJo Romero, César Vargas, Samuel Zazueta and Gerardo Reyes. Those pitchers combined have logged 447.1 career innings in the big leagues. Team USA’s pitchers had accumulated 3,636.1 big-league innings — nearly 10 times that of Team Mexico.
And, oh yeah, did I mention that Team USA had a lineup featuring Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Pete Alonso and … well, you get the point. Don’t get me wrong — I love me some Randy Arozarena (Team Mexico’s leadoff hitter), but Sunday’s matchup between Team Mexico and Team USA was not all that dissimilar from a high-end Triple-A team taking on the National League All-Stars.
In this case, the underdog not only won, but commanded the game from the get-go. After jumping out to a 2-0 lead on a Joey Meneses two-run homer in the top of the first, Team Mexico never looked back. By the fourth inning, they had a 7-1 lead, and Team USA never got closer than five runs from that point on.
What on earth did we witness on Sunday night? Whatever it was, it was a whole lot of fun.
1. A home game for Team Mexico?
Team USA fans were loud at times, but there is no doubt that Team Mexico’s supporters outdid them throughout the game.
This is not all that surprising. There is a sizable population of Mexican immigrants in Arizona; good on them for coming out. What was most notable, however, was not the number of people rooting for Team Mexico, but the sheer amount of noise that those folks managed to make. Chase Field felt like a playoff environment on Sunday.
2. Team USA’s starting pitching problem
Nick Martinez is not a bad starting pitcher. He had a respectable 4.30 ERA in 10 starts for the San Diego Padres last year, and he’ll probably open the year in their starting rotation. But to take the ball in what might have been Team USA’s most important game in pool play? Couldn’t Jacob DeGrom have flown out or something?
The truth of the matter is that many big-league starters are wary of participating in the World Baseball Classic. D-backs starter Zac Gallen, for example, received an invite from Team USA manager Mark DeRosa but turned it down, citing concerns over how it would affect his preparation for the season. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw planned to participate until he ran into insurance issues.
These are valid reasons, but it is unfortunate that the timing of the WBC, among other things, prohibits qualifying countries from putting their best pitchers on the mound. The WBC, at its best, ought to showcase the best talent that each country has to offer. That is not the case now, and it may never be the case as long as the tournament is held just before the MLB regular season gets under way.
To be fair, Team USA was not the only team that suffers from this issue, and the pitching staff, on paper, still looks good enough to go all the way in the WBC.
One could actually make the case that D-backs starter Merrill Kelly is the best that Team USA has. Look for him to pitch in one of Team USA’s next two games.
3. Joey Meneses did what?
I mentioned earlier that Meneses homered in the first inning, giving Team Mexico a lead that they never gave up. The crowd went bonkers.
Meneses hit another tater in the fourth, this time a three-run shot that gave his team a 7-1 lead.
Meneses also singled, finishing the game 3-for-5 with two homers, five RBI and three runs scored.
If you’re not familiar with Meneses — the man who drew MVP chants during his second-to-last at-bat of the game — you’re probably not alone. Meneses broke into the majors last year with the Washington Nationals at age 30. In 56 games, he slashed a bonkers .324/.367/.563 with 13 homers and 34 RBI.
Meneses is one of the best stories in baseball. After bouncing around in the minors, Mexico and Japan for more than a decade, he finally got called up to The Show. He made it count last year, and he has already made his mark on Team Mexico in two games. For as good as he is at baseball, he might be even better at bat flips.
4. Alek Thomas’ defense
Of course, we had to get one Diamondbacks-related storyline here, and it comes from Alek Thomas, the only member of the Diamondbacks organization who appeared in the game. Thomas hit eighth for Team Mexico and played center field. He had a decent night at the plate, going 1-for-5 with a single, a run scored and a hard-hit liner that fell right in the lap of Team USA second baseman Jeff McNeil.
The true highlight of the game for Thomas came on defense, however, as it often does. He made this running grab in right-center field look very easy.
Suffice it to say that Thomas is familiar with the outfield grass at Chase Field.
5. Team USA in danger of not advancing
The structure of the WBC is, shall we say, complicated. Team USA was not eliminated by losing Sunday’s game, but the loss does put them in a precarious position.
If you don’t know much about the format, here are the basics: There are four pools, each consisting of five teams. Each team plays every other team in its pool once, and the top two teams from each pool advance.
A tie between two teams is simple: The team that won the head-to-head matchup is ranked higher. But a tie involving three or more teams is significantly more complicated. And, with Sunday’s result, the probability of a three-way tie increased dramatically.
If Team USA wins their final two games against Team Colombia and Team Canada, they would finish 3-1. If Team Mexico wins their final two games against Great Britain and Canada, they would also finish 3-1. And, if Colombia beats Great Britain and Canada (but loses to Team USA), they would also finish 3-1. There are a lot of if’s there, but all of those outcomes are entirely plausible.
If all of that does happen, Team USA would be subjected to the aforementioned tiebreaker rules. According to MLB.com, the tiebreaker is determined by which team has the “lowest quotient of fewest runs allowed divided by the number of defensive outs recorded in the games in that round between the teams tied.”
That probably sounds like gibberish to anyone who doesn’t have a P.h.D. in math, but suffice it to say that it is based solely on pitching and defense. That system does not bode well for a team that just allowed 11 runs in one game.
Should Team USA fail to advance from pool play into the quarterfinals, it would be the first time that has happened in WBC history.
Granted, even with a pitching staff that lacks top-end firepower, Team USA should have no problem beating Canada and Colombia in its final two matches.
The issue, as Team Mexico reminded everyone on Sunday night, is this: No matter how much better one team is than another, anything can happen.
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Top photo: Joe Rondone/The Republic